Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

by stephenpalmersf

Subtitled The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, this book swiftly became a classic as rumour of its excellence spread. I really enjoyed it, for insight, for originality and for its science.

Each of eight chapters deals with an aspect of the topics in question, beginning with the tree of life and Darwinian evolution. Octopuses are cephalopods, evolving alongside molluscs and splitting from the vertebrate group six hundred million years ago, i.e. before the Cambrian Explosion. This in itself is a fundamental part of the author’s argument, in that cephalopods seem to have evolved intelligence in a completely different way to vertebrates, an origin sourced in the enigmatic Ediacaran biota. Next up comes a chapter on the evolution of nervous systems and remembered experience, before what in my view is the most significant and interesting chapter, dealing with sensation and perception, and the rise of internal experience. I sense a debt to the work of Nicholas Humphrey here, not least from his book Seeing Red.

Subsequent chapters deal with colour changes on cephalopod skin, and the difference between too much “bandwidth” with not much to say (octopi) and not enough with too much to say (baboons) – an intriguing distinction I’ve not seen before. The remaining chapters deal with experience and language, inner monologue, the relationship between lifespan and metabolism, and finally a look at an octopi heartland, Octopolis off the Australian coast, which the author knows well.

All in all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, which I much enjoyed, and which complements the more recent Metazoa rather well. Both these works are significant additions to our understanding of the evolution of animal minds.